Islamic State (IS) militants have committed genocide against Iraq's Yazidi people and other ethnic or religious minorities, according to a recent report from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum that takes the Iraqi government to task for failing to prevent the atrocities the militant group carried out against the Yazidis in summer 2014.
The holocaust museum's report came out just before a mass grave with personal belongings and bones was found outside the Iraqi city of Sinjar on Saturday. Authorities say upwards of 70 Yazidis might be buried at the site.
It is believed the remains belong to older women from the community who were killed when IS militants took over the area, which has long been home to a large Yazidi population, in August 2014. The grave was uncovered after an offensive by Kurdish Regional Government fighters — known as the peshmerga — succeeded in regaining control of Sinjar city on Friday. Yazidis also participated in the operation.
In the findings published last week, the museum also accuses the militant group of committing crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes, specifically between June and August 2014 when IS first escalated its siege. The report also said that based on its reporting the organization believes the militants continue to carry out these crimes.
More than 800,000 people, including Yazidis, Christians, and Turkmen people, have fled or been forced out of their homes in Iraq's Ninewa province since June 2014 when the militant group began a major push to capture large swathes of land in Iraq and Syria. Naomi Kikoler, deputy director of the museum's Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, estimates around 300-400,000 Yazidis have fled specifically.
IS fighters abducted an estimated 5,000 Yazidi men, women, and children during summer 2014. Around 2,000 of those have been able to successfully flee or been smuggled out of IS's self-proclaimed caliphate, activists say. The rest remain in captivity. IS militants consider the Yazidis to be devil-worshippers. The Yazidi faith has elements of Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Islam.
"The Islamic State terror organization is also a genocidal organization," said Kikoler. "When they attack particularly areas as they expand they're not just committing war crimes they're intentionally targeting communities."
Kikoler said the museum chose to highlight the experience of the Yazidis out of a desire to say on the record that they believe genocide is happening.
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"There were so many communities targeted by the Islamic State simply because of their religion," she said. "[We] want to ensure that people cannot say we do not know."
Furthermore, she said it was important for governments and the United Nations to continue trying to document the crimes and gather evidence in order to pursue prosecutions, specifically of foreign fighters as individuals in their home courts in places like Germany and the United States.
The report goes beyond just accusing IS of genocide — it accuses the Iraqi government of standing by and allowing the atrocities to take place. Kikoler said the Iraqi government failed to protect a known vulnerable population or warning communities when an attack was imminent.
"It's really a story of exodus, people who don't feel safe," Kikoler said. "They didn't feel safe for over a decade, it's almost as if this is the final straw for them."
The museum's report adds to an ongoing discussion around whether the attacks that IS has waged against the Yazidis could amount to genocide. In September, two Yazidi activist groups met with International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor Fatou Bensouda to discuss alleged atrocities at the hands of IS, urging the institution to investigate the situation as potential genocide. While Bensouda has addressed the fact that the group seems to be perpetrating serious crimes, she has also acknowledged that the ICC does not have jurisdiction over Iraq or Syria.